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The Veselnitskaya Dangle

July 11, 2017

By May 2016, it was clear that Donald Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination. He formally clinched it on May 26, when two uncommitted North Dakota delegates told an Associated Press reporter that they would vote for Trump at the convention.

By that time, Russian hackers directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin had gained administrator-level access to the Democratic National Committee’s internal computer network. The data compromise was complete; hackers were able to read all e-mail and chat traffic on the network, as well as the complete DNC database of opposition research on Trump.

The DNC was aware of the scope and source of the data breach, having retained the data security firm CrowdStrike, which quickly determined that the attack was Russian. The FBI was aware that Russians had successfully spearfished the DNC as early as the summer of 2015.

But the public was not aware of the scope of the hack or its Russian source. Speaking at a cyber security event on May 18, 2016, James Clapper, then director of national intelligence, had referred to “indications” of attempted cyber attacks on presidential campaigns. But he gave no details, like “whether the attempted intrusions were successful or whether they were by foreign or domestic hackers,” and he did not say which presidential campaigns had been targeted. When reporters asked Clapper’s office for elaboration, they were told only that “we’re aware that campaigns and related organizations and individuals are targeted by actors with a variety of motivations – from philosophical differences to espionage – and capabilities – from defacements to intrusions.” A more unnotably mundane accusation of “espionage” is hard to imagine.

The public did not become aware of the details of the hack until June 14, 2016, when the Washington Post reported that “Russian government hackers” had “thoroughly compromised” the DNC’s computer network.

Meanwhile, on June 3, 2016, one Rob Goldstone e-mailed Donald Trump, Jr., with the message that a high level official of the Russian government was offering “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” Goldstone asked Trump Jr. what he thought would be “the best way to handle this information.” Goldstone said that the offer was “part of Russia [sic] and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Trump Jr.’s reply, just minutes after he received Goldstone’s bombshell e-mail, revealed neither surprise nor dismay, but eagerness: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer” – referring, presumably, to a time after the nominating conventions, when the general election campaign would be heating up.

Following further e-mail discussion, Goldstone e-mailed Trump Jr. on June 7 to propose a meeting with a “Russian government attorney.” Trump Jr. quickly agreed, indicating that he would “probably” bring Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was serving as a campaign advisor, to the meeting.

The meeting was convened on June 9, 2016, on the 25th floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan, just one floor below Trump’s own office. The “Russian government attorney” in question turned out to be Natalia Veselnitskaya, who has been active in opposing American anti-corruption sanctions embodied in a U.S. law known as the Magnitsky Act. Ms. Veselnitskaya brought along a translator, and, as promised, Trump Jr. brought along Messrs. Manafort and Kushner. Goldstone also attended.

The Times reported that it “reviewed” the e-mails, and included some quotations from them, but it did not publish either images of the e-mails or their full text – from which I infer that Times reporters were shown, but not given, copies of the e-mails. Still, the Times reporting on the meeting and the e-mail exchanges leading up to it are much more credible than the web of lies spun by the participants in the meeting – starting with their unanimous denials of campaign-related contacts with representatives of the Russian government, and continuing through Trump Jr.’s dissembling responses to the Times initial reports over the weekend.

If the Times accurately reported the e-mails, and if the e-mails are not forgeries, they irrefutably establish that Trump Jr. went into the June 9 meeting expecting to receive, or to discuss receiving, campaign-related information from a high level Russian government source.

Trump Jr. more or less admitted as much, although his admission took the form of an expression of disappointment that the information delivered at the meeting was “vague, ambiguous and made no sense.” (Given the Trump campaign’s demonstrated willingness to attack Hillary Clinton on the slimmest of bases, one can only wonder how “vague” Veselnitskaya’s information had to be to be considered useless by Trump Jr.)

This raises at least three legal questions. First, the Federal Election Campaign Act prohibits “foreign nationals” from donating to or spending on any American political campaign – and a non-monetary contribution is a donation. Handing over Russian government documents would therefore have been a prohibited campaign donation.

Just as FECA prohibits foreign nationals from donating to American political campaigns, it prohibits American nationals from “knowingly soliciting, accepting or receiving” such donations. Acceptance of such donations is “knowing” if the American knows for a fact that the donation is from a foreign national, has information “that would lead a reasonable person to believe” that the donation is “likely” from a foreign national, or has information that “would lead a reasonable person to inquire” whether the donation is from a foreign national.

The e-mail exchange between Goldstone and Trump Jr. shows that Trump Jr. went into the meeting with information that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the Trump campaign had been offered a non-monetary donation by representatives of the Russian government. Yet Trump Jr. reported this information to no one – not to the Federal Election Commission, not to the FBI, not to the United States attorney whose jurisdiction covered Manhattan – who happened to be Preet Bharara, the same U.S. attorney who had successfully prosecuted Russian arms and drug dealers, was subsequently black-listed by Vladimir Putin in retaliation for the enactment of the Magnitsky Act, was initially asked to stay on under President Trump, but was fired in March 2017, abruptly and without meaningful explanation.

Not only did Trump Jr. not report the e-mail exchange or the meeting; he publicly denied having ever met with Russian nationals where “I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.”

The obligation to report the meeting is the second legal issue. Trump Jr. was probably under no legal obligation to report the meeting, assuming, as Trump Jr. maintains, that Veselnitskaya in fact delivered no information of any value to the Trump campaign. Similarly, Kushner and Manafort may not have been under any legal obligation to report at the time of the meeting. But since then, Kushner applied for a security clearance that required him to report dealings with foreign governments and their representatives, and Manafort has been called before Congressional committees, and quite possibly before the FBI as well. Neither Kushner nor Manafort initially reported the meeting – both reported it only after other meetings they had failed to report came to public light.

The obligation to fully and accurately complete an application for a security clearance is obviously a serious one, as is the obligation to fully and accurately respond to Congressional inquiries and FBI investigations. Kushner and Manafort appear to have failed to meet those obligations – during the campaign, and, in Kushner’s case, while holding a high level White House position.

The third legal issue also relates to the failure to report. Although it was not publicly known on June 9 that the Russian government had sponsored hacking attacks on the DNC, it became publicly known on June 14. Even if Trump Jr. – like his father – was inclined to dismiss the Washington Post report of Russian hacking as “fake news,” nonetheless the Post report aroused at least a healthy suspicion of Russian hacking in any loyal American. At that point, a loyal American – at least any loyal American not blinded by recklessly partisan ambition – would have known that a report to the FBI was called for.

As of June 14, Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort knew of at least a strong possibility that the Russian government had sponsored an attack on the DNC, and all three knew that an offer had been made to the Trump campaign of Russian government information that would damage the Clinton campaign as part of an effort to aid Trump’s campaign. Even without any evidence that the two were connected – that the information offered came from the DNC hacking – a loyal American concerned about the sovereignty of our country and the integrity of our democratic processes would have run straight to the FBI. As far as we know, Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort all sat silent.

*          *          *

President Trump denied knowing about the June 9 meeting, but there are reasons beyond his troubled relationship with facts to doubt his denial. Goldstone’s e-mail to Trump Jr. asserted that the Russian government was engaged in an effort to aid the Trump campaign. Trump Jr.’s reply showed no surprise about this, suggesting the possibility that it was not news to him. If it was not news to him, it’s unlikely that it would have been news to Trump himself – in which case our president was complicit in a foreign effort to influence an American presidential election.

It’s also possible that Trump Jr. simply didn’t believe the statement. Goldstone is in the music and entertainment field, and, although he’s a former British tabloid journalist, it’s not clear that he knows anything about politics or law or the Russian government. At one point, for instance, Goldstone referred to Russia’s chief prosecutor as “the Crown prosecutor,” a title that exists in Britain, which is a monarchy, but not in Russia, which hasn’t been a monarchy for a century.

Trump Jr.’s reply to Goldstone did show some skepticism: “if it’s what you say,” he began. Skepticism might have hardened to disbelief if Veselnistskaya brought only vague nonsense to the meeting. Still, there’s the Washington Post report on June 14, which certainly corroborated Goldstone’s assertion of a broad Russian government effort to help Trump beat Clinton.

Finally, there’s the possibility that Trump Jr. believed Goldstone’s claim that the Russian government wanted to help Trump. That must have been very good news to Trump Jr. If it was a big enough deal for him to impose on the time of Kushner and Manafort to attend the June 9 meeting, it’s hard to believe that he didn’t mention the meeting to his father – with whom, one presumes, Trump Jr. talked from time to time.

I haven’t been able to verify an assertion I saw on cable news yesterday that Trump was at Trump Tower on June 9, and that he had lunch with Paul Manafort. If the latter is true, that’s an additional reason to believe that Trump must have been told about the meeting. Even if only the former is true, it seems at least a little odd that Trump would not be aware of a meeting one floor below his office, attended by three of his closest advisors at the time: his son, his son-in-law, and his campaign chairman.

Legally and politically, this may be the most important question raised by the Times reports: what did the President know about the June 9 meeting, and when did he know it?

*          *          *

The Times first reported on the June 9 meeting last Saturday. Additional reports came each day on Sunday, yesterday, and today. The sourcing was anonymous, except for statements from or on behalf of Trump Jr., Goldstone, Kushner and Veselnitskaya. Sources for the initial story on Saturday were “confidential government records described to The New York Times,” and “interviews and the documents, which were outlined by people familiar with them.” The Saturday report does not say what those documents were, but the Sunday report suggests that they were Kushner’s revised disclosure form and Manafort’s revised statement to Congressional investigators.

Sunday’s report was attributed to “three advisers to the White House briefed on the [June 9] meeting and two others with knowledge of it.” Monday’s sources were “three people with knowledge of the [June 3] email.” And today’s sources were the e-mail exchanges themselves – the Times gives no indication who shared the e-mails with reporters.

The commentariat is all aflutter with speculation about the motives of the sources. Perhaps the most interesting are the “three advisers to the White House” who revealed that  Trump Jr. was promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton before agreeing to the June 9 meeting. Trump Jr. largely confirmed the revelation, and seemed not to realize how problematic the revelation was, both for him and for his father’s presidency.

White House advisers presumably do recognize the potential damage the revelation could do. Previous White House leaks have often been attributed to factional rivalries within Trump’s inner circle: the Steve Bannon nationalists versus the Jared Kushner-Ivanka Trump moderates and the Reince Priebus institutionalists. But Trump Jr. is not a White House official, and has no obvious loyalty to any of the factions; and in any event, an attack on the President’s eldest son and namesake does not seem to be a productive way to advance any White House faction’s favor with the President.

The next best guess is that the Sunday leaks were defensive – designed to minimize the damage that would inevitably follow from the Saturday report and follow-up reporting. The Times reporting indicated that the revised Kushner and Manafort disclosures revealed the occurrence of the June 9 meeting, but not its subject matter. The theory is that it was then a matter of time before Congressional investigators, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, or journalists learned the content of the meeting, and that the “White House advisers” thought that revealing the content on their own would mitigate the damage.

But the “advisers” didn’t arrange an open, public statement at a press conference – they did it by leaking to the “failing” New York Times. To me, this suggests that the “advisers” acted without presidential authority.

Furthermore, it’s not obvious that the leaks did mitigate the damage to Trump. The story has dominated the headlines and media commentary for four straight days, and counting. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees will certainly call new hearings – and witnesses will have a much harder time invoking executive privilege on this subject than at previous hearings, although Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort might invoke Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. (That itself would be quite damaging to the President.) We can be sure that Mueller’s investigative team read the Times reports closely, adding several lines to its to-do list.

Still, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the leakers kept at it because the Times hadn’t gotten the whole story yet. On Saturday, the Times reported the occurrence of the meeting, but nothing more. On Sunday, the Times added information about the subjects of discussion at the meeting. On Monday, the Times described initial Goldstone e-mail. And today, the Times quoted key parts of the more extensive pre-meeting e-mail exchange.

On the one hand, the sequential leaking has the feel of a Deep Throat-type of whistleblower. But on the other hand, at least one day’s leaks came directly from White House advisers, on whom at least arguably the whistle is being blown.

*          *          *

One of Trump Jr.’s statements emphasized that the promised information on Clinton proved to be useless. It’s not clear why Trump Jr. thought that was important, but the implication is that if there was no impact on the election, there was no wrongdoing. Commentators have used a variety of analogies to illustrate the flaw in that logic. One analogy was, if you ask a drug dealer to sell you some cocaine, but the dealer tells you he’s fresh out of cocaine so you walk away empty-handed, you’ve still committed the crime of attempting to buy illegal drugs.

What I think the discussion has missed so far is that, by taking the meeting, Trump Jr. signaled his willingness to accept campaign-related information from the Russian government, and his willingness to meet with Russian nationals offering it. Trump Jr.’s statement implied that he lost interest at the meeting when he realized that Veselnitskaya’s real purpose was to lobby for repeal of the Magnitsky Act. By all available accounts, the meeting was short, suggesting that the Veselnitskaya’s pitch didn’t generate a lot of interest. Veselnitskaya herself recalled that one of the invitees, either Kushner or Manafort, left the meeting after a few minutes.

If Veselnitskaya perceived a greater interest in negative information on Clinton than in the Magnitsky Act, she might have reported that back to the Kremlin – certainly if she was representing the Russian government, and maybe even if she wasn’t. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the initial Goldstone approach to Trump Jr. was a test – a “dangle,” in counterintelligence parlance – to see whether the Trump campaign would take an opportunity, even illicit, to advance their electoral prospects.

As we now know, the Trump campaign took the dangle. Three high level members of the Trump campaign came to the meeting on the proffered, even if pretextual, basis of receiving information damaging to Clinton. If the Trump campaign had not already been compromised by Russian intelligence, it was on June 9.

It’s not possible to know how much of what happened after June 9 would not have happened but for June 9.

On July 22, WikiLeaks published its first batch of hacked DNC e-mails.


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